Set Limits on Kids' Screen Time

Too much screen time is an easy trap for kids and families to fall into—and a dangerous one. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, and other health problems. Plus, screen time can cut into hours better used for sleep, reading, homework, or active play. 

Of course, most parents agree that limiting screen time is a good idea. It's making it happen that is hard.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) previously recommended that kids under 2 not be exposed to screens at all and kids between 2 and 5 should be limited to one hour a day or less. But the organization has updated its advice to reflect the widespread use of media by kids and families allowing for screen time under certain situations.

AAP Media Recommendations

  • Babies up to 18 months old: Video chatting only—such as with a parent who is traveling, or a relative who lives far away
  • Toddlers 18 to 24 months old: High-quality programming that babies and parents view together
  • Preschoolers 2 to 5 years old: No more than one hour a day of high-quality programming, viewed together
  • Kids ages 6 and up: No specific time limit.

For kids 6 and up, parents should develop consistent limits on time spent using media and the types of media consumed. Parents also should ensure media does not replace sleep and physical activity.

When developing your family's media limits, try these 10 options to tame your use of screens. You only need a few that work well for your family. Just remember that you can—and most likely will—need to make changes as kids grow.

Make Bedrooms Screen-Free

Keep TVs, video game consoles, and computers in common areas instead of kids' bedrooms. This means kids can't disappear into their rooms for hours at a time. They must share screen time with other family members, and you can keep better tabs on what they're doing and for how long.

But portable devices like tablets and smartphones can make this rule difficult to enforce. At a minimum, require these devices to be charged overnight in common areas, not bedrooms, so they don't interfere with kids' sleep.

Studies indicate that these devices can increase the amount of time it takes for kids to fall asleep. They also may reduce sleep quality and affect your child's attentiveness in school. Additionally, the blue light that smartphones and tablets emit tends to suppress the hormone melatonin, which helps kids feel sleepy.

Establish Limits for Certain Days or Hours

Some families find that it's easiest to just keep screens off during set days or times. For instance, you might decide that screens are off on school days, except when needed for homework. Or you might restrict screens during certain hours.

Mealtimes, in particular, should always be screen-free, and that includes parents' phones, too. One study found that screen-free mealtimes may serve as a protective factor against childhood obesity.

Establishing rules like this keep you from having to make day-by-day or case-by-case decisions on screen time. Once kids get over their initial resistance, they will accept this rule like any other.

You also can use technology to fight technology, with tools such as router plug-ins, cable and phone settings, and parental control apps. These allow you to decide when and for how long your family's devices are online, and what they can access.

Define Too Much Screen Time for Your Kids

Determine how much daily or weekly screen time you're comfortable with—say, one hour per day on weekdays and two on weekends, not counting screens needed for schoolwork. Inform your children of this limit and explain why you're enforcing it

For young children, simply say that spending too much time on screens isn't good for their brains and bodies. For older kids, you can explain that too much sedentary time is truly detrimental to their health. Determine the consequences of breaking these rules ahead of time.

Provide Active Alternatives

Encourage kids to take walks, ride bikes, play outside, or play indoor active games instead of using their screens. Playing with them is often a big draw. You might also work with them to create a list of non-screen activities they enjoy.

Refer to this list when they have had too much screen time. Health and parenting experts recommend that parents take an active role in making sure that physical activity is part of a child's daily routine. They also stress that extended periods of sitting should be broken up every 30 to 60 minutes by standing and stretching.

Use Age-Appropriate Incentives

Customize your screen-limiting strategies to your child's age. For preschoolers, offer distractions. If you typically let your child play on a tablet while you shower or prepare dinner, find an activity they can do alongside you instead, like coloring with washable crayons on the outside of the tub, or tearing up lettuce for a salad.

For school-aged kids, make screen time a privilege that they earn and plan playdates so they can't complain of "nothing to do." For teens, reserve your right to remove access to cell phones and the Internet if grades slip or household duties go undone.

Require Kids to Earn Screen Time

Require kids to earn screen time by doing homework, completing household chores, practicing their musical instrument, playing outside, and so on. There are many ways to set this up. You might offer tickets or plastic chips that they have to cash in when they watch TV or play online, for example.

Or you can have them keep track of time spent on chores, and allow the same amount of screen time. Another option is to simply rule that homework always comes first, and then any time left over can be spent on TV or other devices. Set an upper limit on that leftover time, though.

Put Screens to Work for You

Turn the TV or tablet on to watch specific shows or play specific games, then turn it off. Don't leave it on as background noise.

Watch with your children so you can monitor the appropriateness of their choices. If you see something you don't like, speak up! Those are great teaching moments.

You also can use a digital video recorder or streaming service to time-shift your viewing, so your watching time matches your schedule. Or, try a motion-controlled game to up the activity level of video gaming—although these games shouldn't replace other, more vigorous exercise.

Be a Role Model

Remember that what you do sends a much more powerful message than what you say. If you flip on the TV news as soon as you walk in the house in the evening or check your phone at stoplights, it's going to be much harder to enforce rules about your child's screen time.

Think about how you want your child to interact with technology and then model that in your own life. You don't want all of your focus on technology use to be restrictive. One study found that the best approach for parents of preschoolers is to use a combination of restrictive, instructive, and co-use approaches to facilitate their child's growth and development.

Give Your Child Some Control

Allow your child some choice about how and when they use a screen, as long as they stay within your family guidelines about time and content. Try to avoid switching off the set in the middle of a show or shutting down their video game mid-level.

Give warnings before time is up, and allow kids—especially little ones—the chance to press the off button themselves. Keep in mind, though, that video games too close to bedtime may affect sleep. One study found that playing video games before bed can result in poor sleep quality and higher levels of fatigue.

Let Kids Be Producers Instead of Consumers

If your child is really into TV, movies, or video games, encourage them to flip to the other side of the screen and be a creator. They could choreograph a dance, stage an epic Nerf battle, or tell a fun story of their very own.

If you have older kids, encourage them to make a podcast or a series of informative videos. This promotes creativity and allows kids to learn new skills and leverage the power of media for their benefit. They also are building their resume for future college applications.

A Word From Verywell

We live in a digital world, but monitoring screen time is still an important issue. Too much screen time for kids—especially at a young age—cuts into time needed for playing, physical activity, reading, homework, and more.

Choose one or two guidelines that you think you can be consistent with and start there. Address the issues that are most pressing. Don't worry too much if you do not get it right all the time. The key is to have guidelines in place to teach your kids to be mindful of what and how much media they are consuming on a regular basis.

9 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Catherine Holecko
Catherine Holecko is an experienced freelance writer and editor who specializes in pregnancy, parenting, health and fitness.